Sunday, February 26, 2017

Who was Johann Struensee?

Johann StruenseeEnlightened absolutism, an idea where the ideas of the Enlightenment championed and implemented by monarchies ruling through divine right, spread across Europe in the 18th century. From Russia to Spain, monarchies called for rule of law, reason, and liberalism. Denmark on the other hand experienced absolute absolutism under a strange circumstances. Reforms aligned to the Enlightenment movement befell Denmark under the hands of a foreign German doctor named Johann Struensee. 

Name: Johann Friedrich Struensee
Country: Denmark
Position: Prime Minister (De Facto) 
Tenure: 1770 - 1772
  • Launched radical reforms guided by Enlightenment ideas
Early Life of Johann Struensee

Born on August 5, 1737 in Halle, Germany, Johann Struensee was the son of an official in the Danish duchy of Schleswig-Holstein. Although the Duchy was under Denmark, it had substantial German population, to which Struensee belonged. His father raised him under strict religious Lutheran or a pietist beliefs. Nevertheless, Struensee disappointed his father when he showed great intelligence and abandoned piety in pursuit of the sciences.

In the 1760’s, Struensee lived in Altona and became a doctor. Altona was a hotbed of Enlightenment ideas. While training as a doctor, he became exposed to the prevailing its ideas. He enjoyed Encyclopaedie of the French and expanded his knowledge of the science, i.e. in medicine; and also veered further away from religion and moved towards atheism. In July 1763, he worked with another intellectual David Panning and contributed articles and essays in the Monthly Journal for Instruction and Amusement. But the journal only lasted for few months before being shut down for its radical ideas.

But other than becoming an atheist and known advocate of the Enlightenment, he also earned a reputation as a womanizer.

King’s Physician

In 1768, Struensee’s skills as a doctor earned him the appointment as the physician of the mentally ill Danish king Christian VII. King Christian was travelling to neighboring countries when he met along the way Dr. Johann Struensee. Struensee earned the King’s trust and confidence and traveled with the monarch. He even earned an honor with the King in the University of Oxford and conferred with a Medical Degree (M.D.). They returned to Copenhagen in January 1769 and Streunsee took the position of court physician. But as whether Struensee had the intention beforehand to use his position to elevate himself in a powerful position remained a question.
Queen Caroline Matilda

As Struensee settled in the court of King Christian, he met his majesty’s lonesome wife. Queen Caroline Matilda lived sad and embarrassing life in Copenhagen. The British Princess turned Queen came to Denmark at the young age of 15. By the time Struensee came at court, she lived isolated and unhappy at the presence of his insane husband. At first, she found Struensee repulsive. But later on, when she found the King’s treatment of her went better thanks to Struensee’s influence, she changed her perspective towards him. The impressionable lonely girl fell in love of Dr. Struensee.

Struensee courted the Queen. By January 1770, their extramarital affair went notoriously well known. His influence over the Queen further grew as he successfully inoculated the crown prince from small pox, a process feared by many a fatal but also a hope against an equally deadly disease. With the Queen completely in awe of him only few steps remained between him and power.

In September 13, 1770, the capable foreign minister Count Johann Hartwig Ernst von Berstorff fell from grace, a victim of intrigue and King’s unpredictable behavior. The vacuum of power went to Count Rantzau-Ascheburg, an ally and friend of Struensee and his family. Struensee, the Count, and another acquaintance, Count Enevold Brandt, a former chamberlain of the King, orchestrated their rise to the most prominent position of power, right next to the king.

Struensee in Power

Struensee’s clique took over the reins of government. On December 18, 1770, he had the King signed an order dissolving the council of state and another making himself the maĆ®tre de requetes. He made the King his puppet, reporting state affairs only for formality and easily influence the mentally incapacitated monarch to his will.

Struensee’s Denmark

Denmark was a modest European country by the time of Struensee’s rise. Compared to its neighbors, it lacked the economic, political, and military might to transform into a major power. Much of Denmark’s position in the region was overshadowed by its more formidable neighbor Sweden. Before, the 2 countries competed for the domination of the region and the vital Sound that opened up the Baltic Sea to the North Sea. Denmark fought many wars that placed tremendous burden in its finances, bringing the country’s position to decline.

Count Bernstorff
Politically, the landed nobility dominated politics while series of Kings showed different styles of rules. Kings showing progressive tendencies or tremendous piety and autocracy succeeded to the throne. Progress remained stagnant. Few officials from the nobility served the country well though.

Count Johann Hartwig Ernst von Berstorff, before being disgraced in 1770, proved himself a great administrator. He supported the development of education and learning. Danish history and literature flourished. And he cemented Danish control of Schleswig with the support of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great.

Under this circumstances, a Denmark that stood fairly in Europe was what Struensee oversaw to transform in an Enlightenment paradise for the continent to see.

Consolidation and Reform

Struensee consolidated power before launching his radical reforms. He removed all department heads. He removed from office many government officials without paying any compensation for their service. He replaced them with younger men he knew, regardless of their competencies. With all other instruments of government gone and his allies in place, he effectively ruled Denmark, a man who knew nothing of Danish and Norwegian culture and language.

Nevertheless, it did not hampered him from launching radical enlightened reforms. He abolished capital punishment and prohibited torture. He promoted intellectual freedom by abolishing censorship on September 4, 1770. He also reformed the civil courts in Copenhagen. Civil servants received salaries instead of favors in kind.

In the economy and financial matters, he reduced subsidies and with the reduction in size of civil servants, resulted to better financial standing for Denmark. The finance of the government consolidated and better coordinated with the creation of the Finance Board. Departments were allocated certain sums of money annually and only allowed to exceed if it was necessary. Free trade also flourished. He also started state sponsored lotteries in order to increase revenue.

Spending of the court also saw reduction. Struensee wanted to separate royal household expenses from government expenses. Number of balls and amusements reduced. Nevertheless, he also made reforms to ease the burden of the lower classes. He repealed salt taxes, which dropped the prices of the condiment vital to the daily needs of the Danes.

He also pursued judicial reforms. He reduced the number of courts. In Copenhagen, the numerous courts overseeing specialized cases were replaced by a single court called “The Court and Town Council of Copenhagen.” He ceased paying fees to judges. Instead, judges began to receive standardized salary from the Treasury. To monitor cases, a list of incarcerated men were posted along with their crimes, time of arrest and the presiding judge. Struensee hoped to make dispensation of justice faster through these measures.

Struensee also made laws that benefited Norway, then under the control of Copenhagen and Danish Kings. For example, he launched an agrarian reform that brought positive changes to the advantage of peasants. Danish corn monopoly promoted Norwegian farmers to supply the crops.

In 1770, harvest failed. Corn and bread prices skyrocketed. Struensee mitigated the effects by banning the export of grain and corns and allowed importation. He also issued a prohibition in making spirits out of corn. After which, prices started to drop and normalize.

In foreign policy, he moved the country away from the alliance with the Russians and in to a new friendlier relations with the Swedes.

As a doctor, he also improved public health by founding hospitals. In December 7, 1770, he issued a decree establishing a hospital for 600 children funded by taxes from carriages and saddle horses. He also set up a special cabinet with mattresses in windows of lying-in hospitals for mothers to place unwanted children safely instead of killing them or placing them in wretched gutters.

To the great fury of the religious in Denmark, he also converted a church into a hospital for sexually transmitted disease. More so, the pious people of Denmark also hated Struensee’s order to reduce the number of religious holidays for economic reasons. Nonetheless, he also fell to his own whims during his rule when he decriminalized adultery and allowed the appointment of valets or servants to vital government positions. All in all, Struensee worked fast to radically reform the country in less than a year. From March 29, 1771 to January 16, 1772, he passed 1,069 cabinet orders.

Struensee furthered his power on July 14, 1771 with the proclamation approved the king appointing him “gehejme kabinetsminister” a position similar to a Prime Minister. The new position allowed him to enact orders even without royal signature.

Fall from Power

Struensee undoubtedly and obviously made numerous enemies. Disgruntled officials both dismissed and the remaining despised the licentious and, in their view, the tyranny of a foreign usurper. He disgusted many for his increasing lavish parties at the expense of pathetic wages for civil servants and royal household. 

Worst, Struensee’s adulterous affair with Queen Caroline Matilda removed any form of patience of the Danes towards him. The relationship was viewed as shameful and dishonorable to the respected Oldenburg Dynasty. They loathed as news of an incident in 1771 spread that Enevold Brandt, encouraged by Struensee and the Queen, locked up and beaten the King after the latter threatened the former with flogging.

After the shocking story, another news broke in summer 1771 that Queen Caroline Matilda gave birth to a daughter and Struensee issued a proclamation ordering the singing of Te Deums in churches. Many believed the daughter to be a result of Struensee and the Queen’s affair. As a sign of protest, many walked out church services.

Struensee rapid reforms and disgraceful acts with the Queen alienated even some of their allies. Count Rantzau-Ascheburg for example saw himself alienated by Struensee and Count Brandt. Moreover, the press that Struensee freed from censorship turned against him when they spread articles and cartoons opposing and ridiculing Struensee.

Queen Dowager Juliana Maria
Finally in autumn 1771, Count Rantzau-Ascheburg forged a plot along with the Queen Dowager Juliana Maria and other nobles. The plot went in force on the early morning of January 17, 1772. The conspirators and their supporters stormed the rooms of Struensee, Brandt, and Queen Caroline Matilda and placed them under arrest. The King Christian VII was brought to a carriage and paraded around Copenhagen in jubilation of the crowd for the symbolic liberation of the country form the despised and debauch foreign doctor and Queen.

Struensee found himself later charged with usurpation and lese majeste, which equaled to treason. At the start of the trial, Struensee stood firm in his trial, denouncing charges against him as preposterous. He believed the Queen would protect her, but then later found no hope when he found out she too fell from grace and also incarcerated. In the end of the trial on April 25, the court found Brandt and Struensee guilty and condemned to a heinous and torturous death.

On April 28, 1772, Struensee and Brandt faced their sentences. Their right hands chopped off before their heads cut off from their necks. Their bodies suffered from quartering, placed on the wheel and broken, before being mounted to a spear. And along all the process, Queen Dowager Juliana Maria observed the process from an opera glass with delight. Struensee’s end also spelled the same for his enlighten reforms.

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